The Manufacturing of Semiconductors: A Bird's Eye View

The Manufacturing of Semiconductors: A Bird's Eye View

Semiconductors are a key component of almost every industry. It’s essential to have a high-level understanding of the industry and where it’s heading.
Terry Jeffords

The semiconductor industry is one of the most important industries in the logistics and supply chain management world, not just because it produces the microchips that run computers and other electronics, but also because it is a major supplier of materials used in other industrial sectors. Many companies in a variety of industries rely on semiconductors and their manufacturing processes to produce goods. It's critical to have a bird's eye view of the industry and potential next steps in the space.

What is a semiconductor?

Semiconductors are a group of materials that conduct electricity under certain conditions. For example, semiconductor devices can be used to control current in an electronic device such as a light bulb or radio.

In the case of transistors (which are popular semiconductor devices), they act as switches that allow electrical signals to pass through to other components within an electronic device. Transistors make up most modern electronics such as computers, cell phones, and televisions.

Transistors are made from silicon, which is one type of material known as a "semiconductor". Other types include germanium and gallium arsenide (GaAs).

Semiconductor manufacturers use these different types of materials to create different types of semiconductor products including computer chips for processing data or microprocessors for running applications on computers.

What are semiconductors used for?

Semiconductors are used in a wide range of applications, including electronics, computing, communications, and power management. They are a key component in modern technology, enabling the development of devices such as microprocessors, memory chips, sensors, transistors, LEDs, and solar cells. Semiconductors are critical for powering smartphones, computers, IoT devices, electric vehicles, and many other advanced technologies.

Semiconductors are crucial to our technological advancement. Here are some of the newer, more exciting applications for semiconductors.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Semiconductors are crucial for the development of AI and ML technologies. Advancements in semiconductor technology, such as the development of specialized AI and ML chips like Graphics Processing Units (GPUs), Field-Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), and Tensor Processing Units (TPUs), have enabled accelerated processing of large amounts of data for applications such as natural language processing, computer vision, and autonomous vehicles.

Semiconductors and the Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of devices that communicate with each other. IoT devices are connected through the internet and can be used in many industries, including manufacturing. Semiconductor manufacturers use IoT technology to track the progress of their products throughout production. For example, a semiconductor manufacturer may use sensors to track the temperature and pressure inside its equipment during fabrication processes, which helps them ensure quality control standards are met at every stage of production.

The rise of 5G technology networks

The next generation of wireless connection, 5G, promises to be faster and more reliable than today's 4G networks. However, it's not just about faster download speeds—5G will play a critical role in supporting the Internet of Things. Because IoT devices are often used for industrial applications such as manufacturing, transportation services, shipping/receiving logistics and healthcare diagnostics/treatment monitoring; they require not only fast data transfer rates but also very low latency periods where there is no delay between sending information and receiving a response.

Quantum computing

Quantum computing, an emerging field of computing, relies on the principles of quantum mechanics to perform computations that are not possible with classical computers. Semiconductor technology is used to create and manipulate qubits, the fundamental building blocks of quantum computers. Advancements in semiconductor technology are expected to drive progress in quantum computing, with potential applications in areas such as cryptography, drug discovery, and optimization problems.

Advanced sensors

Sensors are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are finding applications in various fields. For example, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, which use semiconductor technology, are being used in autonomous vehicles for navigation and obstacle detection. Other advanced sensors, such as biosensors for healthcare applications and environmental sensors for monitoring and mitigation of climate change, are also being developed using semiconductor technology.

Neuromorphic computing

Neuromorphic computing is an emerging field that seeks to develop computing systems inspired by the human brain. Semiconductor technology, such as memristors and spiking neural networks, is being used to create artificial neural networks that can perform tasks such as pattern recognition, decision-making, and learning with reduced power consumption and improved efficiency compared to traditional computing approaches.

How semiconductors are manufactured

Semiconductor manufacturing is a complex and precise process that begins with the creation of a semiconductor wafer made of silicon. We'll provide a high-level overview here, but bear in mind that processes differ and they are significantly more complex when you dive into the details.

The wafer goes through a series of steps known as wafer fabrication or "wafer fab." This involves preparing the wafer by cleaning and polishing it, applying a layer of photoresist, and using a photomask to project a pattern onto the wafer surface. The exposed areas are chemically treated to create patterns that define the features of the semiconductor devices. The wafer is then etched, implanted with ions to modify its electrical properties, and subjected to high temperatures in annealing to activate dopants and repair any damage. Thin films of materials are also deposited on the wafer to create various device layers.

Once the wafer fabrication is complete, individual semiconductor devices are created through additional processing steps. These include isolating the devices from each other through etching or implantation, depositing and patterning metal contacts for electrical connections, and applying additional layers for passivation and protective coatings.

After the individual devices are created on the wafer, they undergo testing to ensure their functionality. The chips are then separated from the wafer and packaged into plastic or ceramic packages, which provide protection, electrical connections, and thermal management. Finally, the packaged chips are tested again before being shipped for use in various electronic products.

Semiconductor manufacturing is a sophisticated process that involves a combination of wafer fabrication, device processing, packaging, and testing steps to create the semiconductor devices used in a wide range of electronic products.

The future of the semiconductor industry

The semiconductor industry is a fast-growing, high-tech sector that produces essential components for many of today’s electronic devices. The industry is also one of the most important industries in the world because it has a great influence on society and its development.

It's constantly evolving, and its development priorities can vary depending on various factors such as market demand, technological advancements, and global trends. However, some common development priorities of the semiconductor industry include:

  1. Miniaturization and Moore's Law: Shrinking the size of semiconductor devices and increasing their performance, in line with Moore's Law, which predicts that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles approximately every two years. This involves advancing semiconductor process technologies to enable smaller feature sizes, higher transistor densities, and increased performance while reducing power consumption.
  2. Power efficiency: Improving the energy efficiency of semiconductor devices is a key priority due to the increasing demand for energy-efficient electronics, IoT devices, and green technologies. This involves developing low-power designs, power management techniques, and energy-efficient materials for semiconductors to reduce power consumption, extend battery life, and reduce environmental impact.
  3. Advanced packaging and integration: Enhancing packaging technologies to enable higher levels of integration, improved performance, and increased functionality of semiconductor devices. This includes 3D packaging, system-in-package (SiP), and wafer-level packaging (WLP) techniques, which allow for higher integration of components and improved system-level performance.
  4. Specialized applications: Developing semiconductor technologies for specialized applications such as AI/ML, 5G and beyond, quantum computing, and automotive electronics. These areas require specialized semiconductor solutions, such as AI/ML accelerators, RF chips, high-speed data converters, and automotive-grade chips, to meet the unique requirements of these applications.
  5. Reliability and security: Ensuring the reliability and security of semiconductor devices is critical for various industries, including automotive, aerospace, healthcare, and defense. Developing robust and secure semiconductor technologies, such as hardware security features, fault tolerance, and tamper-resistant designs, to protect against threats and ensure the safe operation of electronic systems.
  6. Environmental sustainability: Addressing environmental concerns by developing more sustainable semiconductor technologies, such as eco-friendly materials, recycling and waste reduction techniques, and reducing the carbon footprint of semiconductor manufacturing processes. This includes efforts to minimize the use of hazardous materials, optimize energy consumption, and implement circular economy practices.
  7. Supply chain resilience: Building resilient semiconductor supply chains to ensure stable and secure access to critical components. This involves diversifying sourcing strategies, reducing dependencies on single sources or regions, and implementing risk management practices to mitigate supply chain disruptions.

These are some of the common development priorities of the semiconductor industry, which are shaped by technological advancements, market demands, and global trends. The semiconductor industry is highly dynamic and continues to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of various industries and enable new technological innovations.

Semiconductors will continue to be an important part of modern industry

Semiconductors are an important part of modern industry, and the semiconductor market is a huge one: the semiconductor industry generated revenues of $527 billion in 2021. Semiconductors have as wide of a range of applications as these numbers suggest; they are used in everything from computers to smartphones and beyond. They are also at the heart of our increasingly connected world—a phenomenon known as the internet of things (IoT).

As the industry becomes ever-more important, disruptions to it become that much more disruptive to the world as a whole. Semiconductor shortages that sprang from the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, led to widespread shortages in huge sectors of the economy such as the automotive industry and computing industry. Disastrous events are unavoidable, and it's up to companies that use semiconductors to build their products to be ready to handle them - that's where the resilient supply chain comes into play.

Amplio helps companies build resilient supply chains with its innovative BOM tool software. Simply upload your BOM(s), and Amplio's software will continually monitor the market for potential disruptions. It will then alert you, and our team will work with you collaboratively to preempt shortages - either through alternate sources of supply suggested by our platform, or with form/fit/function alternate parts. When shortages come out of nowhere, we even have our PartSecure service that will locate and purchase trusted parts on the secondary market for you. With Amplio, you'll be able to see shortages coming, make smart moves to head them off, and have a backup plan when things get rough.

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